By Marc S. Sanders
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull succeeds on so many levels of storytelling and construction. It stays true to form of its title character protagonist. Indy is not only a hero. He’s also a traveler of history. The film takes place in the year 1957, and director Steven Spielberg delivers visuals that reiterate the time, when the Cold War was on the horizon, and Nazi Germany was behind us. It’s time for the Russians to step up as the big bad.
David Koepp’s script really is quite brilliant as it never loses sight of the times with references to McCarthyism, communist red scare, and flying saucers and aliens directly inspired by the B movie serials of the decade. Even Shia LeBeouf portraying a sidekick to Indy is a model of Marlon Brando from The Wild One.
I’ve mentioned before how simply the silhouette of the famed archeologist with his fedora hat and bullwhip is as recognizable as Batman or Darth Vader or James Bond. Here, Spielberg uses the visual motif against a mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb test site, and later against a flying saucer. As noted earlier, Dr. Jones moves with time; truly living up to his famous phrase, “It’s not the years honey. It’s the mileage.”
Harrison Ford maintains the character quite well, still skeptical of what is not literal. He’s not prepared to believe in higher powers until he sees it for himself. Ford conveys Koepp’s interpretation very well.
It’s refreshing that he is paired up again with Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood (from Raiders), the best of Indy’s female companions. Their sparring remains natural. Allen folds back into her role quite comfortably.
Stalin’s top underling is dispatched with recovering a legendary Crystal Skull and revealing it’s true power. Master character actor Cate Blanchett makes for a great Russian bob haircut villain, with uniform physique. She’s smart but she’s got every fighting skill known to pose great threat.
An infamous scene involves Indy sheltering himself in a refrigerator to survive a nuclear blast. Majority despise this scene. The phrase “Nuke The Fridge” became almost as iconic as “Jump The Shark,” simply for the audacity of its imagination. After having witnessed the near-death escapes of his past adventures (parachuting from a plane in an inflatable raft, sliding under a speeding truck, becoming “a penitent man” to cross a cavern), what is so wrong with this moment? Heck, Spielberg knows it’s crazy which is why he offers a close up indicating the fridge is “lead lined.” The scene works because it holds true to Indiana Jones’ series of absurd survival.
Besides all of the periodic references, the set design of Kingdom… is spectacular. Looking at the final act of the film, we are treated to a column that opens itself up with ingenuity as sand must pour out of the column in order for the structure to open with a receding downward staircase. Then, there’s a beautiful open sesame moment before entering a circular throne room.
Another earlier moment stages a hidden chamber that is revealed on a large, stone, tilted disc. All of this collectively speaking is truly one of the best set pieces in all four of the Indy films.
A delightfully fun car/motorcycle chase on Indy’s college campus is great as well as there is jumping from bike to car and back to on to the bike before swerving into the library. The scenic background design has to be admired for showing protest signs to Communism on campus. The film never loses sight of where its story is set. Detractors of this film fail to recognize any of this.
Fans also took issue with LeBeouf. Not me. He’s got an adventurous fun side to him. The smart aleck way of Ford’s younger years, but not the same character background. He has fun with swinging from vines and sword fights, in the same vein of a mine car chase from a prior installment.
The story is moved by clues and maps and deciphering a welcome John Hurt who speaks in a gibberish of riddles that stem from a brainwash his character experiences. This is all good for a great pursuit. Nothing is easily revealed. Mayan writing needs to be interpreted; maps need to be read. Stories of legend need to be told. Indy needs to apply his professional knowledge to move forward through the Amazon to his final destination.
I’d argue that Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is one of the most misunderstood and divisive films of all time. People gave up on it too easily, I think. They reserved their approval because of either a ridiculous title (a great B movie title), or LeBeouf’s casting, or Ford’s age, or vine swinging and big ass red ants (a great monster horror scene by the way). I say those folks just didn’t get it and failed to recognize where all of this stemmed from. David Koepp, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were very aware of what to present. If I were them, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Again, it’s not the years. It’s the mileage.